Mirrorless camera systems finally feel like they have come of age. Yes they've been knocking around for a couple of years, but over the last 12 months we've seen models which can genuinely rival DSLRs in terms of image quality and performance. While this choice is great for the camera-buying public, it also makes it even more tricky when deciding which system to invest in ... which is why we decided to compile a guide to the top mirrorless camera releases of 2012.
There have been simply too many mirrorless cameras released this year for us to look at them all. So we narrowed our comparison down to the six which we consider to be the most notable:
Cameras which almost made it into our comparison, but were just edged out by those above, include the Fuji X-E1, the Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH3, the Olympus PEN E-PL5 and the Samsung NX1000.
Mirrorless cameras come in all shapes and sizes – just look at the Pentax K-01 – and there's quite a range, even within our pick of the six best from 2012.
The Fuji X-Pro1 and the Olympus OMD EM-5 are considerably bigger and heavier than most mirrorless options, mostly due to their viewfinders and beefy construction (more on that later), while the Panasonic GF5 and the Canon EOS M are battling it out for that spot in your jacket pocket with the smallest dimensions.
More pixels mean a camera can produce more detailed images, but if they're crammed on a small sensor, the resulting images can be noisy. So getting the right balance between sensor size and megapixel count is important.
The Panasonic LUMIX GF5 has the smallest pixel-count of the bunch with 12 MP, but it uses a 4/3" sensor... which means its pixels are still bigger than those in the Nikon 1 V2 with its 14.2 MP and smaller 1-inch-type sensor.
Most of the mirrorless cameras here with APS-C sized sensors share a pixel-count around the 16 MP mark, while the Canon EOS M has the highest at 18.0 megapixels.
The Nikon 1 V2 features the most Autofocus points with 73 phase detection areas and 135 contract detect areas – helping it achieve ultra-fast focus which, it's claimed, rivals some professional DSLRs.
The Sony NEX-6 also combines phase-detection and contrast-detection to achieve speedy focus in most lighting situations, with a respective 99 and 25 AF points. At the other end of the scale the Panasonic LUMIX GF5 has just 23 AF areas.
Because mirrorless cameras don't require a mirror to flick up and down between taking images (like DSLRs) they're often capable of faster burst rates. That's certainly the case with the Nikon 1 V2, which can shoot 15 frames per second with autofocus, or a blistering 60 fps with focus position for the first frame fixed.
The Sony NEX-6 and Olympus OMD EM-5 aren't far behind with 10 fps and 9 fps respectively, but the Canon EOS M appears somewhat sluggish with just 4 fps, though this could be that with 18MP it is handling more data… or just because Canon doesn't want to canabalise DSLR sales.
While a large ISO range should theoretically mean good quality images in any lighting conditions, this category has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Not all ISO 1600 settings are created equal, while one could produce clean images, another could leave you with messy noisy shots.
Also, while most of these cameras have an ISO which is expandable to 25,600, you have to question when you would ever use this setting given the blotchy mess your resulting images would be.
Only the Fuji X-Pro1 boasts a hybrid optical/electrical viewfinder which overlays electronic data over an optical viewfinder, while the Sony NEX-6 has the highest resolution EVF with 2,359k dots. This is followed by the the OMD and Nikon 1 V2 with 1,440K dot EVFs.
All of the cameras feature three inch monitors on the rear, but with 1,230K dots the one of the Fuji X-Pro1 has the highest resolution, though not far behind is the Canon EOS M with 1,040K dots and the added benefit of touchscreen abilities.
Though the Olympus OMD EM-5 features the lowest resolution with a rather dated feeling 610K dots, its tilting OLED screen can come in handy when shooting in awkward positions.
SD/SDHC/SDXC compatibility reigns supreme as the storage media of choice for mirrorless cameras, but the Sony NEX-6 adds the ability to use Memory Stick PRO Duo if you've still got any of those proprietary memory cards lying around.
All of the cameras in our comparison offer the ability to shoot RAW or JPEG images, but while 12 bit RAW is the most common, the Canon EOS M allows 14 bit RAW files, which some would argue gives you more options when editing files.
The most notable construction details amongst the mirrorless cameras are the die-cast aluminum alloy top and base of the Fuji X-Pro1 and the magnesium alloy body of the Olympus OMD EM-5, which gives both cameras a sturdy feeling, but with the obvious additional heft.
The Olympus OMD EM-5 is the only one of the cameras to be weather sealed in the same way as professional DSLRs, meaning that if you plan on shooting in extreme weather conditions, it's probably the obvious choice.
Full HD recording is offered across the board, but with a few caveats: The Sony NEX-6 is the only camera to feature 50p recording at 1080, the others peak at 30p, or in the case of the Fuji X-Pro1, 24p which gives a more movie-like appearance. By the time you reduce to 720 HD, 60p recording has become the standard.
There's USB 2.0 and HDMI output on all of the cameras, via either micro or mini connectors. However, only the Nikon 1 V2 and Canon EOS M have a 3.5mm audio input for using an external microphone while recording video.
While the Olympus OMD EM-5 can have wireless capabilities with the use of an optional Bluetooth dongle, the Sony NEX-6 is really the stand-out performer when it comes to wireless prowess.
PlayMemories Camera Apps, which can be downloaded to the Sony NEX-6 via built-in Wi-Fi, allow for features like the direct uploading of files to the internet, and the ability to control the camera from a smartphone or tablet.
Kit lenses can be a great starting point with a new camera. They offer great value, opposed to buying lenses separately, though there's little point buying a interchangeable-lens camera if you're only ever going to use one lens.
Most of the kit lenses are wide to medium focal-range zooms with average aperture ranges. However the 22mm f/2 prime, which is bundled with the Canon EOS M, is considerably faster (allowing for lower light photography and a shallower depth of field) and stands out as a lens which will still get used, even if you acquire a selection of glass.
The Olympus OMD EM-5 and the Panasonic LUMIX GF5 share a Micro Four Thirds lens mount, meaning a wide range of compatible lenses, while the other cameras each use mounts designed specifically for their manufacturer's range or mirrorless cameras.
While the number of lenses available for some of these mounts is somewhat limited, it's worth remembering that adapters can give you an arsenal of lenses at your disposal on all of these cameras, though sometimes without metering or auto-focus.
The likes of the Nikon 1 V2 and Canon EOS M have adapters available allowing the use of their respective DSLR lenses... and Leica lenses look awfully nice on the front of the Fuji X-Pro1.
A quick look at the prices of the cameras in this comparison shows they are not all competing for the same market. The Panasonic LUMIX GF5 is the least expensive at US$500 with a kit lens while the Fuji X-Pro1 comes in at $1,400 for the body only.
Obviously, you could buy a DSLR for the same price as many of these mirrorless cameras, which at one point would have been an obvious choice, but these mirrorless cameras are able to produce images which are just as good, and often in a smaller and more portable form.
It's really just a matter of deciding what size, price and functions are important to you and, as is always the way with cameras, the best way to know which one is right for you is to feel them in your own hands. You might decide you couldn't be happy without a separate viewfinder, or that you want the smallest mirrorless camera you can, to make it more likely that you'll carry it around with you everywhere you go.
If I was currently in the market for a mirrorless camera, the Fuji X-Pro1 would be the one at the top of my shopping list. The sturdy construction, retro looks and manual dials all appeal, but the optical/electrical viewfinder really makes it stand out from the competition. Coming from using film cameras and DSLRs I struggle to enjoy the experience of using an LCD screen to compose shots, and even the best EVFs can suffer a slight lag. Also, while sluggish autofocus was once a reason to steer clear of the Fuji X-Pro1, a recent firmware update has made it positively zippy.
Click here to see all of the above specifications in one chart.
Ed's note: This article was amended on 11 December 2012 to include specifications originally omitted on electronic viewfinders. We apologize for the error.
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